Here’s the thing no one wants to admit about televised Christmas movies: they’re all horrible. Don’t get me wrong, there are beautiful moments in every Christmas movie: when Kevin rigs the entire house to look like a party dancing to “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” for example, in Christmas classic Home Alone, or every time White Christmas gives up the facade of being an actual movie instead of a Bing Crosby showcase.
But Christmas, at least in its modern, capitalist, de-Jesusified form, is an ideological construct that’s supposed to connote “family” and “love” and “celebration.” Many times, those feelings do arise — for me, it happens in the moment when my brother and I decorate Christmas cookies precisely in the style of our five and eight year old selves, which is to say like an expressionist hyper-sugared art project — but they’re almost accidental, or incidental, to the larger, awkward, passive aggressive interactions that attend family Christmas. It’s not our fault so much as the realities of modern society: most of us don’t live near our families, so when we all get together once (or twice) a year, it’s obviously going to be replete with frisson, which generates both positive and negative heat. The static, bland, overly positive rhetoric of Christmas thus helps paper over the dynamic, piquant experience of it.
And if Christmas is an ideological construct, then Christmas movies are its handmaidens. In each Christmas movie, “Christmas,” as a nourishing, essential event, is threatened in the first act, nearly lost in the second, and regained, in newly valuable, even more cherished form, in the third.
And once the Christmas movie migrates to television, repeating every year, often days on end, its purpose only amplifies. The Christmas movie, which itself underlines the importance of Christmas rituals, becomes part of the Christmas ritual! We can’t deal with our own complications of the Christmas ideology, so we retreat to watch others grapple with — and crucially, successfully address — those same problems. We feel better not because our Christmas woes have been solved, but the movie suggests that they are, ultimately, solvable…..
You can read the rest of the piece here.
We watch music videos for three overarching and often related reasons: hotness, dancing, and story.
You might not like to admit to the first one, but the amount of hotness in videos can only suggest that we like it. Whether the video is for Drake or Tim McGraw, Miley Cyrus or Celine Dion, one of its goals is to reaffirm the singer’s overarching attractiveness. The camera fetishizes different body parts depending on the singer and the type of music he or she sings: Rihanna’s videos focus on her thighs and stomach, One Direction’s focus on their smiles, Adele’s focus on her highly emotive face. Even the video for, say, Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit,” with its slo-mo headbanging and anguished close-ups, is invested in fetishizing their particular brand of alternative hotness.
Not all videos have dancing, but those that do are addictive. Think of the best videos of the last 30 years: dance figures prominently in 72% of them, with noted exceptions for a “story” entries described below. All of Michael Jackson’s videos, Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?,” Britney’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover,” Janet Jackson’s “If,” Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop,” Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” — we watch them again and again, because the dance, in singular or group form, is hypnotic.
But the hotness and the dancing are (very rarely) narrative: they’re the descendants of what film scholar Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions.” Gunning used the term to describe the style of very early film shorts (think “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and “What Happened on 23rd Street”) that didn’t adhere to established forms of narrative established by the theater. These films were operated like a game of “now you see it, now you don’t,” manipulatively addressing and arousing the spectator’s curiosity. Whereas “normal” narrative pretends like it’s a world unto itself, the cinema of attractions always knows it’s being watched. It presents a scenario, builds the tension, and then lets it explode. The muscles of Sandow the Strongman were an attraction; same for Annabelle and her Butterfly Dance. They’re on the stage; they even sometimes stare into the camera. They’re performing for the camera gaze rather than maintaining the subterfuge that the camera doesn’t exist. It’s vaudeville instead of theater, the variety show instead of the soap opera.
As camera technology became more sophisticated, the cinema began to adopt the three-act structure we now associate with narrative film, but the cinema of attractions never completely disappeared. Instead, moments of self-conscious spectacle integrated themselves into several genres: you see it especially in the musical number, the five minute fight scene, the never-ending gross-out joke. Even the slo-mo male gaze on a female body is a cinema of attraction, willfully violating codes of realism.
The narrative tries to paper over just how weird and implausible it is for, say, an entire school to know the choreographed danced moves to a song (hey Step Up), sometimes more successfully than others. But those moments of spectacle become the moments that matter: they’re the meat of the film trailer and the stuff you’ll find clipped on YouTube. They make SO LITTLE NARRATIVE SENSE, but we love them.
Finish the article here.
The first time I saw Paul Walker, he was being incredibly hot in Varsity Blues. He had a bit of a vicious streak — something I recognized from certain football players at my own high school — but he was far more attractive than mopey-eyed James Van Der Beek. Then there he was in She’s All That, and his image was solidified: hot, cocky asshole.
Walker worked ceaselessly to undo that image: see, for example, Eight Below. But even in the Fast and Furious franchise, he’s just a hot, cocky asshole who drives cars instead of quarterbacking. He’s no great actor, but he never had to be: he had the swagger that comes with ridiculous handsomeness down. If his teen movies and the Fast and the Furious franchise were all “genre films” — films that hew perfectly to what we expect of them, are relatively cheap to make, and because of the way they do what we want them to do, always have dependable grosses — then Paul Walker was a genre star. You saw his face, and you knew exactly what kind of film you were stepping into. The parameters might change, and adversaries and sidekicks and love interests could as well. But his presence was much of guiding narrative force as any car or football game.
At first, I thought the similarities between Walker’s death and that of James Dean were just too uncanny: both were a particular brand of handsome, characterized by high cheekbones, piercing eyes, and something almost too beautiful about them. Both made their name in car racing films; both died in accidents — in Porsches — outside of the Los Angeles area. Both, of course, died young. But Dean died while speeding between 75 and a 100 MPH on the way to a drag race, and Walker died on after attending a car show to benefit the Philippines disaster effort. Dean was 24 and railing against the world, and Walker was 40 — a grown man — and even if his onscreen persona still raced cars, his image, onscreen and off, had matured past the petulance of his Varsity Blues persona.
Dean’s image represented anger and regret and unhinged emotionality, and his death simultaneously reified and amplified those characteristics — one of the many reasons he became a cult figure. On its surface, the means of Walker’s death fits his image: it could be the conclusion to the next film. But that’s a fundamental misreading of the genre and Walker’s place within it. The great thing about genre film, and the genre actors like Walker who populate it, is that it replays the same scenario over and over again, often time rifting on fundamental ideological problems to do with class, race, gender, politics, etc., but each and every time, we’re given some modicum of closure. The rift exists; the movie shows it and then closes it. Each and every time, Walker steps out of the car in one piece. What’s unsettling, then, and is his inability to do so here. And so his final genre performance shifts, uncontrollably, to one of tragedy.
I’ve been sorting through this question on Twitter all morning: which classic Hollywood stars would dominate Saturday Night Live? It was prompted by my recent piece for Dear Television, entitled “Good, Giving, and Game: Towards a Theory of SNL Hosting,” in which I work through who’s a good host (Timberlake, Hamm, etc.) who’s a bad host (Taylor Lautner), and why. Short answer: you have to be versatile as shit.
Here’s what I said about Josh Hutcherson’s hosting turn from last Saturday, and what lead me to the idea of classic stars:
Here’s a guy who, on paper, should be a horrible host. He’s the (relatively) boring straight man from a franchise (albeit a better franchise than most) and his acting, at least in the first one, isn’t noteworthy. If there’s one thing people know about him, it’s that he’s not whothey would’ve cast as the hot, strong-armed baker-turned-Katniss love interest.
From the beginning of the episode, Hutcherson was all about redeeming himself. In the first sketch, he roundly ridicules the passivity of his Hunger Games character, and in the digital short “Matchbox 3,” about a crew of subway performers who do their acts in very, very confined spaces, he not only makes fun of his height, but gives himself over fully to the role.
And then there’s the most bonkers skit on the show, in which Hutcherson brings home his “new girlfriend” for Thanksgiving, only to surprise his family with the fact that she’s….a turkey.
It’s a classic example of weird, end-of-the-night SNL. It’s not funny, exactly, nor is it entirely satire, but Hutcherson’s ability to straight-facedly make out with a turkey should make us consider him as something more than sad-faced Peeta.
Because Hutcherson is, indeed, more than just a franchise star: he was convincing and embarrassed in The Kids Are Alright, and he’s been slogging through bit roles and kid parts since 2003. Like Hamm, Timberlake, and other recent SNL charmers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Miley Cyrus, Hutcherson is a workhorse — in classic Hollywood, they called actors like them “troupers” because they’d paid their dues, often since they were young children, in vaudeville troupes, where they’d laugh, cry, sing, dance, do stunts, and then do it all over again 24 hours later in the next town. They were GGG because their very livelihood depended on it. Cary Grant was a trouper, so was Judy Garland — and both would’ve made superlative SNL hosts. Because when it comes down to it, SNL is the vaudeville show for the 21st century, with the ability to bring out the best and worst in its hosts.
For my purposes here, I’m not going to include classic Hollywood comedians — just like my piece didn’t talk about comedian hosts. Those people are good because they’re raised in the tradition. I’m more interested in which stars have the chops to do something as versatile as hosting SNL, and thinking about just how superlative that experience would be. All of the stars below have proven versatility — some of them were raised as vaudevillians, like Garland and Grant, and some are just equally at home in comedy and drama, like Katharine Hepburn. They’re all “good” actors, they all have charisma, and none of them are too serious about themselves or their images: as I say in the piece, they’re “good, giving, and game.” And so, in no particular order, with tremendous assistance from Twitter…..
Classic Hollywood Stars Who Would Be Amazing at Hosting SNL
1.) Cary Grant
2.) William Powell
3.) Carole Lombard (this one I just can’t get over)
4.) Marlene Dietrich (host AND musical act)
5.) Gene Kelly (although he’d be very self-congratulatory/Justin Timberlake about it)
6.) Jimmy Stewart (watch A Philadelphia Story and you’ll understand)
7.) Katharine Hepburn (see above)
8.) Frank Sinatra (w/the rat pack on assist)
9.) Mae West
10.) Talullah Bankhead
11.) Edward G. Robinson
12.) Peter Lorre
13.) Montgomery Clift
14.) Marilyn Monroe
15.) Barbara Stanwyck
16.) Sammy Davis Jr.
17.) Judy Garland
18.) Fred McMurray
Classic Hollywood Stars Who Could Either Be Amazing or Truly Horrible, Depending
1.) Ingrid Bergman
2.) Marlon Brando
3.) Elizabeth Taylor
4.) Rita Hayworth
5.) Ava Gardner
6.) James Dean
7.) Vivien Leigh
8.) Debbie Reynolds
Classic Hollywood Stars Who Would’ve Been Stiff, Boring, or Horrible
1.) Audrey Hepburn
2.) Greta Garbo
3.) Joan Crawford
4.) Humphrey Bogart
5.) Lauren Bacall
6.) John Wayne
7.) Clark Gable
8.) Gary Cooper
9.) Laurence Olivier
10.) Jean Harlow
11.) Doris Day
12.) Rock Hudson
13.) Clara Bow
14.) Harry Belafonte
15.) Deanna Durbin
And a few I can’t decide: Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Burt Lancester, and James Cagney. I’d love your help — and other suggestions — in the comments.
I can’t get away from the postfeminist dystopia. I’ve written about it here, here, and here; I just gave a presentation on its application to Girls; I just submitted a conference panel proposal in which three other very smart scholars and I apply it to Girls, Us Weekly, the star image of Katherine Heigl, and Spring Breakers. It’s all over; it makes more and more sense. But I also think it’s not operating in a vacuum: it affects men, too, even if not as directly as women. But men have their own dystopia with which to grapple: borne of the ubiquity of digital, streaming porn.
With the rise of New Media, porn has become ubiquitous, free, and amazingly accessible — and that ubiquity has come to structure both sexual and gender relations. In this era of ubiquitous porn, men deal with an equally contradictory ideologies of masculinity that call for them to be sexually aggressive, dominating, and muscular….while also abandoning physical labor (because it’s not longer a feasible lifelong income) and not being misogynist assholes. You shouldn’t beat your wife, but rape jokes, those are chill. You should be romantic with the lights on, but when they go off, you should behave like a porn star, because that, at least as far as you’ve seen, is what women want. Objectifying women is Bad, but seemingly every media text, including those directed at women, openly invites you to do so.
The overarching contradiction: how do you live life as a feminist — espousing the straightforward ethical belief that women are equal to men — when the world that surrounds you pummels you with encouragement, both implicit and explicit, to act and think otherwise?
Which is why I love Don Jon. I get the critiques: it’s somewhat hamfisted in its use of repetition to emphasize points; I agree with those who say that the “guido-face” of the performances compromise its power. But it’s the first text I’ve seen that both honestly and extensively interrogates the realities of both living in the post-digital porn world….and trying to forge relationships with women living within the postfeminist dystopia.
Let’s look at the life of our main character, Jon:
As he says in the trailer (and the beginning of the movie), “there’s on a few things I care about in life: my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, and my porn.”
My Body: American culture — and not just ‘guido’ culture — dictates that the dominant understanding of “hot” = “jacked.” Now, “jacked” is an exaggerated physicality that’s actually a fetishization of the working class body: a body that looks like it labors. But since most of those jobs of disappeared, most men, working class or otherwise, go to the gym and lift heavy things in order to approximate the bodies that their jobs would’ve created for them. Jon is a working class guy, but he works, in his words, in “service” — he bartends. But in order to obtain a desirable body, he has to spend his off hours doing pull-ups.
My Pad/My Ride: Consumption isn’t somehow a new part of masculinity. It’s a holdover compunction — what you own, and how it’s kept, says something about what kind of man you are. But you have to consume in a very particular way: consume too much, look like you care too much, and you’re feminized. There’s a brilliant scene between Jon and Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) at a Pier-1 type store, shopping for curtain rods. After helping Barbara in her own consumer fantasy, Jon excuses himself — not to go sit in the car because he’s bored, but to go get some Swiffer pads. He maintains his apartment diligently — how else is he going to make his one-bedroom pre-fab apartment look good? — but Barbara is absolutely aghast that he do something as unmasculine as clean his own floor. The real sin, in fact, is buying the Swiffer pads in the first place, committing the ultimate sin of emasculating yourself in public. But it’s a double-bind: consume, but look like you don’t.
My Family: Jon’s mother lives in a fairytale. Some people have complained about the facile characterization of the parents, but I think it serves a pretty compelling purpose: clear distillations of the first wave of postfeminism. It’s doubtful that Jon’s mother ever “gave up” on feminism (we only see her cooking dinner; we have no indication that she works outside the home) but her life seems to rotate entirely around her son’s ability to fulfill a fairytale. To come home, in her words, and tell her “I’ve found her.” A beautiful girl, a beautiful wedding, beautiful babies. She’s already had her supposed fairytale — which resulted in a home where her husband yells incessantly and watches football instead of engaging with others — so she remaps the scenario on her son. He brings home the “perfect girl” (read: the type of girl her father finds attractive and her mother finds appropriately feminine), but the problem is that that girl is nothing but a set of attributes that add up to “perfection.” As Jon’s sister points out in her one line in the film, “she doesn’t actually know a thing about you.” She’s too busy being a princess, and cultivating the “perfect relationship,” to pay attention to anyone else, even her counterpart. But more on that later.
Last crucial point: Jon has clearly adopted his fetishizing tendencies from his father, who mirrors him in both looks, wardrobe, and temper. As we learn from the story of Jon’s parents’ “meet cute,” his dad saw his mom and said “that’s mine.” His attitude towards women is thus one of fetishization and possession, of dominance and control. He may not be watching as much internet porn as Jon, or any at all (he doesn’t know what a TiVo is), but the porn attitude is a natural extension of his gender politics. But he’s also not happy — and neither is Jon.
My Church: The film is not unsubtle with this point: Jon is a hypocrite. Every week, he drives to church screaming obscenities, punching in windows with rage. We never hear the sermon because Jon never really hears the sermon — church is all ritual and symbolism. We see the stained-glass windows; we seem him making the sign of the cross and kneeling. He goes to confession, but treats it as a game to be won or lost, visibly pumping his fist when he receives five fewer Hail Marys and Our Fathers than the week before. Church tells him he is a good person simply for attending, not for actually acting out the principles of Christianity. Appearance, not acts.
My Boys: Don actually seems to have pretty healthy male friendships, all things considered. Sure, all they talk about are women, and spend most of their time rating those women based entirely on their physical attributes. But you don’t see much of the traditional tension in films like these (and life): how to still be a “guy’s guy” when you’re devoting your life to your girlfriend. Jon’s friends build up his masculinity — he’s better at “smashing girls” than both of them; he’s taller and better looking — but they also ratify his life choices. When Barbara breaks up with him for watching porn, his friend supports him in his belief that that’s ridiculous. Chances are, if these movies would’ve shifted focus, these men are dealing with the same impossible contradictions that affect Jon.
My Girls: These are postfeminist girls. We only really get to know Barbara, but she’s the part that stands in for the whole: reared on rom-coms that suggest that consumption and self-objectification, with the ultimate end goal of a fairytale wedding, is the path to happiness and fulfillment. She’s a virgin and a whore, a ball-buster and a princess; she gets what she wants….only what she wants is not only self-serving, but hollow. Granted, we don’t see figuring out that that life is hollow. But our only grown woman is Jon’s mom — a woman who clearly sees Barbara as a kindred spirit — and who, as emphasized above, now fulfills herself with the fantasies of the next generation. When Jon points out that Barbara spends just as many hours engrossed in her own implausible, destructive fantasies (read: the rom-com), he’s not wrong.
My Porn: Jon has never known a world without porn. When Esther (Julianne Moore) asks him if he’s ever masturbated without porn, he honestly cannot think of a time. His sexuality was entirely shaped by porn and the dynamics it celebrates. But he can’t find pleasure with actual women — probably because he’s acting out the scenarios he’s seen in his videos, scenarios that look fulfilling but, in practice, are just the opposite.
But it’s not entirely Jon’s fault. Postfeminist women have been equally affected by the ubiquity of porn: teens are now reporting that they’re expected to engage in “porny” behaviors (I’ll let you fill in the blanks yourself) very early on, in large part because their partners have been immersed in media that depicts and normalizes those behaviors (or at least makes them standard). A woman thinks that men want a porn star, so a woman behaves like a porn star. Her pleasure is faked; his pleasure is never what he wants it to be. Lose, lose.
Jon tries to quit porn, but soon discovers that porn surrounds him: the objectified, fetishized female body has become so normalized that even women’s magazines, exercise videos, and fast-food restaurants use it to sell products. Again, this isn’t anything new, but it’s amplified with each passing year. How can Jon give up porn and the sexual dynamics it promotes when seemingly every piece of media invites him to continue the practice? The anti-porn feminists used to say that “porn is the theory; rape is the practice.” That’s powerful rhetoric, and I’m not sure I entirely agree. But I do think that the idea of “porn as theory” is incredibly compelling, especially given its current ubiquity. It becomes the de facto guide for how you should treat a woman in the bedroom,which consciously and unconsciously dictates how you’ll treat women outside of the bedroom.
I realize I’m treating porn as a monolithic being. There’s a fair amount of porn that’s not aggressively masculine, focused on male pleasure, or reifying the dynamics described above. But most porn — the dominant form of porn — is just that.
But that’s not even the real problem. The real problem is that porn, and the mainstream “children” of porn, tell you to behave one way — and another strand of media tells you to behave another. It’s like the virgin/whore complex, only for men: let’s call it the prince/dick dichotomy. A guy must both be what women want him to be (kind, respectful, willing to be a stay-at-home Dad, generous in the bedroom, takes up half of the household chores, a feminist) and what dominant, porn-influenced says he should be (aggressive, disarticulated from the domestic, selfish in the bedroom).
To be clear, women contribute to this dichotomy. Think of Marnie in Girls, speaking about her ostensibly perfect boyfriend: “It’s like he’s too busy respecting me that he looks right past me and everything that I need from him.” What she “needs” from him, at least at this point, is for him to act like a dick. When an dickish guy comes on to her (“The first time I fuck you, I might scare you a little, because I’m a man, and I know how to do things) she’s so turned on that she flees to the bathroom to masturbate. But the dick turns out to be much to much of a dick — he doesn’t satisfy her in bed, as much as she really wants that scenario to bare out, and he ignores her outside of it.
The digital porn guy wants a fantasy that doesn’t exist, but the postfeminist girl wants one as well. Usually, movies don’t deal with this impossibility, but that’s precisely where Don Jon excels: it shows just how unfeasible the ideology has become. The montage of Don Jon undergoing a furious, seemingly weeks-long masturbation marathon isn’t hot; it’s dystopic.
In my recent presentation on the postfeminist dystopia, I divided my analysis between texts that know they’re dystopic and those that do not. Girls knows it’s highlighting the contradictions; Revenge does not. Jersey Shore doesn’t know it’s highlighting the contradictions of digital porn masculinity, but that Don Jon clearly does. That’s why it so clearly interrogates porn, which usually goes unnamed in depictions of contradictory contemporary masculinity. Instead of shying from it because it’s dirty or unacceptable, it faces it head on. In that way, it’s a spectacularly honest film, which is part of the reason I can forgive it its various faults.
But Don Jon also offers a sort of solution. It isn’t giving up porn, exactly, so much as embracing an understanding of sex and love outside of the ideologies of porn masculinity. Society is the way that it is; there is no outside of ideology. But you can choice to negotiate your own way within those existing ideologies, and the more texts like this highlight the dystopia, the more these dominant understandings of “proper” behavior, sexual and otherwise, are compromised. Don Jon doesn’t advocate for a life without porn, per se. But it does suggest that a life immersed within it is no fantasy — for men and women alike.
As a full-time academic, my work is split in three: I teach, I write for academics, and I write for the internet (where academics also hang out). Sometimes, however, I’m able to bring all three of those interests together — which is precisely what happened with my contribution to How to Watch Television, edited by Jason Mittell and Ethan Thompson. With the encouragement of the press and the editors, you’ll find my piece (on Entertainment Tonight and how it altered the landscape of television — no seriously) below, but to contextualize the project and its purpose, I’m excerpting Mittell’s introduction (including the table of contents), which he posted to his excellent blog Just TV earlier this week. Read on, get the book, be awesome.
I am quite excited to announce the publication of my latest book, How to Watch Television. Of course, in this instance, “my” should really be “our,” as the book was edited by me and my friend Ethan Thompson, and features 40 essays by an all-star line-up of media scholars young and old, familiar faces and new names. I’ve been itching to share my own chapter, about Phineas & Ferb, so you’ll find that essay previewed below the fold. But first, here’s some background on what we were trying to accomplish with the book, and why you might want to read it.
The idea (and title) was Ethan’s, and he approached me as a potential contributor to a volume that would be designed for the undergraduate classroom, with short essays each focused on a specific television program to model a critical approach within television studies. Too often, students lack models for how to write smart, accessible, engaging works of academic television criticism—most journalistic examples lack historical context and scholarly argumentation, and most academic examples are too long, too dense, and more often focused on larger theoretical arguments than close analysis of television texts and contexts. I was so taken with the idea, and excited about how it might dovetail effectively with my introductory textbook Television and American Culture, that I signed on as co-editor. Ethan & I spent months in 2011 soliciting essays that span a wide range of genres, historical eras, authorial perspectives, and authors in different stages in their careers. We ended up with a remarkable table of contents featuring 40 (!) original essays by great writers on an array of topics, arranged by broad categories of television analysis. The line-up really needs to be seen to be believed:
I. TV Form: Aesthetics and Style
1. Homicide: Realism – Bambi L. Haggins
2. House: Narrative Complexity – Amanda D. Lotz
3. Life on Mars: Transnational Adaptation – Christine Becker
4. Mad Men: Visual Style – Jeremy G. Butler
5. Nip/Tuck: Popular Music – Ben Aslinger
6. Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television – Jason Mittell
7. The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling – Sean O’Sullivan
8. Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!: Metacomedy – Jeffrey Sconce
II. TV Representations: Social Identity and Cultural Politics
9. 24: Challenging Stereotypes – Evelyn Alsultany
10. The Amazing Race: Global Othering – Jonathan Gray
11. The Cosby Show: Representing Race – Christine Acham
12. The Dick Van Dyke Show: Queer Meanings – Quinn Miller
13. Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences – Hector Amaya
14. Glee/House Hunters International: Gay Narratives – Ron Becker
15. Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism – Elana Levine
16. Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing – Susan J. Douglas
III. TV Politics: Democracy, Nation, and the Public Interest
17. 30 Days: Social Engagement – Geoffrey Baym and Colby Gottert
18. America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor – Laurie Ouellette
19. Family Guy: Undermining Satire – Nick Marx
20. Fox & Friends: Political Talk – Jeffrey P. Jones
21. M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy – Noel Murray
22. Parks and Recreation: The Cultural Forum – Heather Hendershot
23. Star Trek: Serialized Ideology – Roberta Pearson
24. The Wonder Years: Televised Nostalgia – Daniel Marcus
IV. TV Industry: Industrial Practices and Structures
25. Entertainment Tonight: Tabloid News – Anne Helen Petersen
26. I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer – Miranda J. Banks
27. Modern Family: Product Placement – Kevin Sandler
28. Monday Night Football: Brand Identity – Victoria E. Johnson
29. NYPD Blue: Content Regulation – Jennifer Holt
30. Onion News Network: Flow – Ethan Thompson
31. The Prisoner: Cult TV Remakes – Matt Hills
32. The Twilight Zone: Landmark Television – Derek Kompare
V. TV Practices: Medium, Technology, and Everyday Life
33. Auto-Tune the News: Remix Video – David Gurney
34. Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content – Suzanne Scott
35. Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste – Michael Z. Newman
36. Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technologies – Louisa Stein
37. It’s Fun to Eat: Forgotten Television – Dana Polan
38. One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling – Abigail De Kosnik
39. Samurai Champloo: Transnational Viewing – Jiwon Ahn
40. The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics – Henry Jenkins
It’s a remarkable line-up, and everyone managed to produce essays that run counter to many trends of academic writing: tightly focused, clearly written for general readers, jargon-free, not too long, and submitted on time! After a editorial and publication process, we’re thrilled to announce that New York University Press is now shipping the book at an incredibly reasonable price of $29 (for a well-designed 400 page book of original content!). You can order it at the NYU Press website, along with previewing the introduction or requesting a review copy for faculty thinking about adopting it in a class. You can also order it on Amazon, where the already low price is even more discounted or the Kindle version is even cheaper (note that Amazon says it will be released on Monday, but I think they might already be shipping it). Or please request it at an independent bookstore near you, if you’ve got one.
Even though it was designed for classroom use and I’m quite excited to teach it in the spring, we’re happy that the essays do not read as academic homework—our secondary goal was to create public-facing intellectual criticism, demonstrating what some of our smartest colleagues and friends have to teach anyone about television. If you’re a television scholar, this is the book you show your mother to explain what it is that you do! And if you’re not a television scholar, I hope this book gives you a sense of what the field has to share with a general readership.
For a taste of that type of criticism, a few of us contributors who are regular bloggers will be sharing our chapters online (I’ll link to them in the Table of Contents above once they go live). Mine is below, offering an account of one of my favorite children’s programs, Phineas & Ferb. If you like the essay, remember that the book has 39 more chapters of similar work. (And if you don’t like it, I guarantee you that many of the other 39 are better…) I hope you read the book and enjoy!
ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT: TABLOID NEWS
Until the early 1980s, “first-run” syndicated programming—that is, programming created for initial airing in syndication, not reruns—was limited to a “ghetto of game shows, talk shows and cartoons.”1 Entertainment Tonight (syndicated, 1981–present) gentrified that ghetto, changing the way that both television producers and stations conceived of first-run syndication and its potential profitability. Indeed, if you flipped through the channels between the evening news and the beginning of primetime during the 1980s, you would almost certainly happen upon a now-familiar sight: the wholesome face of Mary Hart, reporting on the latest happenings in Hollywood. As the host of Entertainment Tonight, Hart helped popularize a new mode of celebrity gossip in which stories on the private lives of stars and celebrities comingled with reportage of box office receipts and on-set exclusives.
Since its debut, ET has become one of the longest running, most consistently profitable programs on the air. In the 1980s, it readied the way for a profusion of entertainment news programs and venues that now form a major node in the media landscape, from E! to Entertainment Weekly. Yet Entertainment Tonight’s success must be situated amidst a constellation of technological and regulatory changes, from the spread of cable and satellite technology to the gradual repeal of the Financial and Syndication Rules and other anti-monopoly regulations. This essay positions ET within the greater industrial climate of the 1980s, underlining the ways in which the program’s unmitigated success fundamentally altered the landscape of first-run syndication.
Beginning in the days of early radio, the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) blocked Hollywood studios from entering into broadcasting, fearing the consolidation of entertainment media into the hands of few. This practice continued when broadcasting expanded from radio to television, as the FCC blocked film studio attempts at entering into television, station ownership, cultivating “Pay-TV” options, or starting their own networks. At the same time, the FCC was wary of the existing networks, their growing power, and their apparent negligence of the mandate to use the airwaves for the public good. By the end of the 1950s, ABC, CBS, and NBC relied on programming which they owned or had invested in—a practice that may have streamlined profits, but also resulted in a schedule replete with derivative game shows and Westerns.2
The resultant crop of programming, famously deemed a “vast wasteland” by FCC chairman Newton Minow in 1961, encouraged FCC passage of the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, otherwise known as Fin-Syn, in 1971. Fin-Syn prohibited the networks from securing financial interest in independently produced programming and syndicating off-network programming. Coupled with the Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR), Fin-Syn also limited the amount of programming that each network could produce for itself (such as news) and freed a portion of primetime from network control. The resultant time slots, dubbed “prime access,” would allow affiliates to program independently, hopefully with shows serving the local interest.
In short, the FCC blocked the networks’ attempt to vertically integrate, barring them from producing the content they distributed. With the passage of Fin-Syn and PTAR, the FCC also hoped to free broadcast hours from network-induced repeats, opening the airwaves to local interests and concerns. In several crucial ways, these regulations served that purpose, but failed to encourage local programming. When tasked with filling the hours vacated by PTAR, local stations usually opted for syndicated offerings from studios or independent production companies, which not only cost less, but brought in higher ad revenue.3 Without Fin-Syn and PTAR, Entertainment Tonight—a show produced by a major studio (Paramount) and broadcast during prime access—would not have been possible.
Entertainment Tonight was conceived by Alfred M. Masini, a former advertising executive and the creative force behind the hit music program Solid Gold. Masini came up with the idea for ET by studying what was not on the air—no one was providing “entertainment news” in the form of information on box office receipts, upcoming projects, Nielsen ratings, gossip, and personality profiles.4 But the particular brand of “news” that ET was prepared to offer was a commodity that consumers had no idea they were supposed to desire. Indeed, before 1981, “almost no one, outside of pencil pushers in the business, had heard of television’s upfront ad-selling season” let alone attendance figures, production deals, and industry machinations.5
But if ET provided that news, Masini hypothesized, audiences would watch. As longtime ET host Mary Hart recalled, “Do people really want to learn all these details—the weekly TV show ratings, the top-grossing movies? If we present it concisely and regularly, the answer is yes, people do want to learn.”6 Hart’s rhetoric reproduced the implicit message of the program, which suggested that entertainment news, when offered concisely on a daily basis, accrues gravity and importance. In other words, ET supplied entertainment news and figures with such regularity that such information no longer appeared superfluous but necessary to make sense of the entertainment world.7
While Entertainment Tonight was introducing a new genre of programming, it was also proposing a novel model of distribution. ET, like Maisani’s other hits, was syndicated. For the previous thirty years, syndicated programs had been “bicycled” from station to station, airing in one market, then sent, via the mail, to another. As a result, the lag-time between production and airing could be weeks—unacceptable for a program promising up-to-date Hollywood news. Paramount offered a solution in the form of satellite technology. In exchange for control of the show, Paramount offered to install and lease dishes to any station willing to air the show.8 The offer resulted in a collection of 100 local stations equipped to receive the ET feed and a reach unthinkable without Paramount’s infusion of capital.9
Satellite distribution also allowed Entertainment Tonight “day and date” transmission, meaning the show could be aired the same day it was filmed. This promise of immediacy would prove quintessential to ET’s image. In the early 1980s, the weekend’s box office figures came in at noon on Monday. ET would tape its segment at 1:30 p.m., and the finished product would be seen across the nation within hours.10 As a result, ET even beat the long-established Hollywood trade papers Variety and Hollywood Reporter in announcing figures crucial to the industry. In truth, such immediacy mattered little to ET’s audience, the vast majority of whom had no fiscal investment in the media industry. But the distinction of ET as the “first in entertainment news” bestowed its viewers with the status of insiders and experts and, by extension, encouraged dedicated viewership.
ET’s cost and market penetration were unprecedented. Three months before it aired, ET had already been cleared in 100+ markets, reaching 77 percent of U.S. homes with all advertising spots sold for the year.11 In its first week on the air, ET made good on its promises to affiliates, earning a 12.6 national rating—enough to make it the highest-rated national newscast.12 But early reviews were not kind. The hosts were “dreadful”; the news was “so soft it squishes”; it was “People Magazine without that fine publication’s depth.”13 One critic deemed it a “press agent’s dream,” calling out a recent on-set visit to Paramount-produced Grease II as pure promotional propaganda.14 In decrying ET’s intimacy with the industry, critics were in fact criticizing the designed cooperation between the production cultures at ET and the studios. In other words, ET was intended to be a press agent’s dream and serve as a promotional vehicle for Paramount, not an independent journalistic outsider. These functions were not intended to be visible to the average viewer, only the savviest of whom would even realize that the show was produced by the same corporation as Grease II.
Over the next decade, critics would continue to criticize ET’s relationship with Hollywood. According to one Time reviewer, “ET is a part of the phenomenon it covers, another wheel in the publicity machine it seeks to explain.”15 ET has built a “cozy, symbiotic relationship” with celebrities, and “[t]he show has dropped almost all pretense of being anything but an arm of the Hollywood publicity machine,” filled with “fluff indistinguishable from advertising.”16 Such assessments were not inaccurate, but perhaps missed the point, as ET had never aspired to function as a source for hard news or investigative journalism. From the start, ET’s tone has mirrored that of a traditional fan magazine, offering fawning, flattering portraits of the stars and Hollywood delivered by Hart and her various co-anchors in a bright, cheery fashion. While ET would not shy away from reporting on an existing celebrity controversy or scandal, the tone was never derogatory or denigrating. Most importantly, ET did not break such stories itself, lest it risk alienating a celebrity or publicist. The addition of entertainment news and figures helped ET gain credibility and attract a broader demographic, but it did not change the character of the relationship between the program and its subjects.
That relationship, however, was one of ET’s biggest assets. As Variety observed, the program is “a big wet kiss in terms of promotion of projects.” A single appearance on ET could reach double, even triple the audience of a network morning show or late-night talk show.17 Such reach gave ET tremendous leverage, especially over publicists eager to place celebrity clients on the show. ET producers exploited this leverage to exact a host of demands, including exclusive footage, access to stars, and the right to air a film trailer before any other outlet.18 But ET needed celebrities and their publicists as much as they needed ET. “The reality is that we’re all in bed with each other,” said one top talent manager. “So nobody can tell anyone off. I need them. They need me.”19
ET attempted to make up for lack of hard content with snappy editing, musical accompaniment, and fast-paced storytelling. Producers livened up its otherwise soft approach with flashy graphics, sound effects, and quick cuts that add “portent” and attract audience members who are “video fluent,” thus manifesting a graphic mode that John T. Caldwell has termed “exhibitionism,” in which stylization and activity take precedence.20 In 1983, a typical program began with seven to eight minutes of industry news, delivered in the style of a nightly news program, followed by a “Spotlight” on celebrity and an on-set exclusive (a “Never-Before-Seen glimpse behind Johnny Carson’s desk!”). The show generally closed with an “in-depth” report on style, an industry trend, or “a look backward at entertainment of the past.”21
From time to time, a longer, more investigative piece or multi-part series would replace the final section. Because ET was shot on video, producers could easily and cheaply manipulate graphics and other visual framing devices (bumpers heading to and from commercials, “Next On” previews, logos). The cluttered aesthetic compensated for the otherwise “low” production values and, more importantly, guided viewer response and discouraged viewers from changing channels. The carefully orchestrated mix of content, oscillating between headlines and statistics, eye-catching imagery, and slightly longer interviews and features likewise prevented viewer fatigue with a particular segment.
Over the course of the 1980s, ET continued to grow. By September 1983, it trailed only Solid Gold (1980–1988) and Family Feud (1977–1985; 1988–1995; 1999–present) among syndicated programming with an 8.9 weekly rating, while its weekend show, Entertainment this Week, earned a 14.4.22 By the end of the decade, ET had established itself, in the words of one Hollywood observer, as “such an important component in the way the industry is covered by press and television that it would be difficult to imagine its absence.”23 According to Ron Miller, a journalist for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, ET’s concept had “revolutionized the TV syndication business and proved that expensive, original non-network programming can be profitable to everyone.”24 ET prided itself on its success, collecting both of the above quotes for a full-page Variety advertisement that trumpeted the program’s success. With its placement in the leading Hollywood trade, ET was effectively advising other Hollywood entities that the program had taken on a crucial promotional role within the industry and could not be ignored.
With the potential and profitability of the genre firmly established, imitators followed. Between 1981 and 1990, more than a dozen shows and pilots attempted to emulate the ET formula, including Metromedia’s All About US (1984); Paramount’s America (1985); King World’s Photoplay (1986); Tribune Entertainment’s Public People, Private Lives (1988–1989); TPE’s Preview (1990); Twentieth’s Entertainment Daily Journal (1990–1992); and Viacom’s TV Star (1980), Entertainment Coast to Coast (1986), Exclusive (1988), and America’s Hit List (1990). Some shows, such as the pilot for All About US, were clear attempts to create cross-media promotion for print publications, while others, such as Twentieth’s Entertainment Daily Journal, attempted to provide promotion for parent companies, in this case Fox/News Corporation.
Imitators also struggled for a reason that had little to do with Entertainment Tonight. ET was innovative and addictive, but its initial clearances and subsequent growth took place during a period of high demand for syndicated programming. As the number of independent stations was growing (from 106 to 215 between 1980 to 1985), the number of shows being sold into “off-network” syndication (commonly known as reruns) was decreasing.25 The networks had become increasingly quick to cancel high-budget shows with mediocre ratings, and without at least a season or two already produced, a program could not be profitably sold into syndication. The lack of rerun material thus bolstered the first-run syndication market, which included shows like ET, Solid Gold, and a raft of game shows such as Family Feud and Wheel of Fortune 1983–present).26 ET and the game shows were joined in the late-1980s by televised tabloids— A Current Affair (1986–2005), Hard Copy (1989–1999), and Inside Edition (1988–present)—that distinguished themselves through interest in the weird, the tawdry, and other sensational subjects otherwise at home in tabloid journalism.27
Each station’s schedule had a finite amount of “prime access” space between the evening news and primetime. Depending on the time zone and the length of the local news, a station had room for two, three, or maybe four half-hour “strips” at most. By the end of the 1980s, ET, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! (1984–present), A Current Affair and Inside Edition had claims on all of the quality access time periods.28 A program might settle for a moderate number of access clearances, slowly building its audience. Yet any program attempting to emulate the ET formula needed to expend a similar amount of capital, which, by 1988, was $21 million per year, or $400,000 a week. In order to turn a profit, a new program required prime access clearance in a similar number of markets, generally upwards of 100. With so few access spots available, competitors faced nearly insurmountable odds. Entertainment Tonight’s success throughout the 1980s was thus a result of its novelty, innovations, and the ruling logic of the conglomerate media industry.
In 2011, Mary Hart stepped down from Entertainment Tonight after twenty-nine years as co-host. While the show goes on, Hart’s exit signaled, however unofficially, the end of an era. The mode and speed with which ET disseminated “entertainment news” for the majority of Hart’s tenure was a thing of the past, replaced by online video, breaking news sent to mobile phones, and celebrity Twitter updates. The transformation was gradual: over the course of the 1990s, a raft of similarly-themed programming (Extra, Access Hollywood, the entire E! channel), all with backing from major media conglomerates, cut into ET’s market share. In the mid-2000s, the rise of gossip blogs further compromised ET’s hold. These early blogs—Perez Hilton, Gawker, Just Jared, The Superficial, and dozens of others—offered immediacy, a markedly snarky attitude, and a distinctly new media style of breaking and proliferating content that attracted millions of visitors.29 In contrast, despite a content-sharing partnership with Yahoo, ET’s web presence was negligible, attracting a mere 609,000 visitors in July 2007.30 Of course, ET has historically catered to a different (older, less technologically savvy) demographic, and most viewers were content with a self-contained, twenty-two-minute television program.31
But in 2007, TMZ on TV expanded the parameters of the market. As the televised extension of TMZ.com, then garnering over 10 million unique visitors a month, TMZ on TV enjoyed a massive built-in audience, backing from Time Warner–owned Telepictures and AOL, and a clearance deal with FOX stations across the country.32 After one year on the air, it was available in 90 percent of American households, garnering an average Nielsen rating of 2.3. TMZ still trailed ET, but it brought in viewers who were both younger and male, and thus more valuable to advertisers.33 Most importantly, TMZ modeled a form of convergence in which content transitioned seamlessly from the web to the airwaves, edited to fit the specifics of each medium and its audience.
ET had to change its attitude towards breaking news and digital content lest it be left in TMZ’s dust. Between 2007 and 2010, it began broadcasting in HD, expanded to partner with MSN.com, and significantly updated its website to include many of the features found on TMZ, including streaming video, breaking news, photo galleries, Twitter updates, and the ability for users to share stories through social media.
While ET no longer enjoys the uncontested dominance that characterized its rein in the 1980s, perhaps we can gauge its importance somewhat differently. In 2011, ET maintained an average of 5.9 million viewers (more than the CBS Nightly News) and ET-style reporting on celebrity couples, movie grosses, and industry deals now infuses everything from The Huffington Post to CNN.34 With Hart’s departure and the continued surge of web-based content, including “intimate” access to celebrities via social media, ET may decline. Or it may endure, catering to those who like their celebrity coverage cheery and fawning, working to adapt to the increasingly convergent media culture. Regardless of its eventual fate, it is clear that Entertainment Tonight fundamentally altered the landscape of first-run syndication, paving the path not only for Extra, Access Hollywood, and TMZ, but the infusion of “entertainment news” in all its various manifestations across the contemporary mediascape.
1. Aljean Harmetz, “TV Producers Discover New Path to Prime Time,” New York Times, July 5, 1988, C16.
2. See Michele Hilmes, ed., NBC: America’s Network (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Janet Wasko, “Hollywood and Television in the 1950s: The Roots of Diversification,” in The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950–1959, Peter Lev, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 135–46.
3. Marilyn J. Matelski, “Jerry Springer and the Wages of Fin-Syn: The Rise of Deregulation and the Decline of TV Talk,” Journal of Popular Culture 33 (2000), 64–65.
4. Peter Funt, “One Man’s Formula for Sure-Fire Hits,” New York Times, April 6, 1986, 14.
5. Kevin Downey, “ET: It Changed Show Biz and Changed the Syndie Biz as Well,” Broadcasting and Cable, November 17, 2003, 22.
6. Michael E. Hill, “Entertainment Tonight: On the Air Fan Magazine,” Washington Post, May 27, 1984, 5.
7. See Michael Joseph Gross, “Famous for Tracking the Famous,” New York Times, June 23, 2002, A1.
8. The show’s ownership was a “patchwork” of production companies and cable providers: Paramount owned 40 percent, Cox Broadcasting-owned Telerep held 40 percent and Taft Broadcasting had the remaining 20 percent. Paramount was viewed as “the principal production entity,” in part due to its role in funding the installation of the satellite network.
9. Funt, “One Man’s Formula,” 14.
10. Rick Kissell, “ET Innovations Now Taken For Granted,” Variety, September 8, 2000, A6.
11. Entertainment Tonight Ad, Variety, June 24 1981, 57; Morrie Gelman, “Par TV’s Entertainment Tonight Marks a Major Step in Networking,” Daily Variety, June 23, 1981, 10.
12. “Entertainment Tonight Wins Big-Par TV,” Daily Variety, October 6, 1981, 12.
13. James Brown, “All the Fluff That’s Fit to Air,” Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1981.
14. Howard Rosenberg, “Relentless Pursuit of Fluff,” Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1982, G1.
15. Richard Stengel, “Turning Show Biz into News,” Time, July 4, 1983, 72.
16. Gross, “Famous for Tracking the Famous,” A1; Richard Zoglin and Tara Weingarten, “That’s Entertainment?” Time, October 3, 1994, 85.
17. John Brodie, “ET’s New Competitor Sets Flack a-Flutter,” Variety, July 25, 1994, 1.
19. Susanne Ault, “ET: The Business Behind the Buzz,” Broadcasting & Cable, July 2, 2001, 14.
20. Gross, “Famous for Tracking the Famous,” A1; Peter W. Kaplan, “TV News Magazines Aim at Diverse Viewers,” New York Times, August 1, 1985, C18. John Thornton Caldwell, “Excessive Style: The Crisis of Network Television,” in Television: The Critical View, 6th ed., Horace Newcomb, ed. (New York: Oxford, 2000), 652.
21. Stengel, “Turning Show Biz into News,” 72.
22. “First Run Syndication Leader,” Variety, September 21, 1983, 82.
23. Ibid.; David Gritten, quote attributed to Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. See Entertainment Tonight Advertisement, Variety, February 1, 1984, 67.
24. See Entertainment Tonight Advertisement, Variety, February 1, 1984, 67.
25. Michael Schrage, “TV Producers Woo the Networks,” Washington Post, January 15, 1985, E5.
27. See Kevin Glynn, Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of American Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).
28. “Entertainment Tonight turns 3,000,” Broadcasting & Cable, March 8, 1993, 30.
29. See Anne Helen Petersen, “Celebrity Juice, Not From Concentrate: Perez Hilton, Gossip Blogging, and the New Star Production,” Jump Cut, 2007, http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc49.2007/PerezHilton/index.html.
30. Paige Albiniak, “New, Improved Access,” Broadcasting & Cable, September 10, 2007, 9.
31. While numbers for all television viewing had steadily declined with the expansion of cable and new media, ET still earned a 5.4 Nielsen rating in January 2006. Ben Grossman, “Entertainment Mags Rock,” Broadcasting & Cable, January 23, 2006, 17.
32. For more on TMZ, see Petersen, “Smut Goes Corporate.”
33. Paige Albiniak, “TMZ Stays in the News,” Broadcasting & Cable, November 26, 2007, 12.
34. Brooks Barnes, “After Hart, a Deluge of Meaner Celebrity TV?” New York Times, May 19, 2011, C1.
Caldwell, John Thornton. Televisuality: Style, Crisis and Authority in American Television. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Glynn, Kevin. Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of American Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Petersen, Anne Helen. “Smut Goes Corporate: TMZ and the Conglomerate, Convergent Face of
Celebrity Gossip.” Television & New Media 11, 1 (2009): 62–81.
People love to rag on Boardwalk Empire. The generalized complaints: it’s boring, it’s all the prestigious packaging without the gravitas, its lead (Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buschemi) isn’t interesting. But mostly: it’s boring.
Are these the same people who say that Mad Men is boring? Or, more specifically, the same people who really only like Mad Men because of Jon Hamm’s face? Because I don’t get it: just because a show is 60 minutes long and doesn’t jump between six different fantasy worlds, all peopled with women in various stages of undress (read: Game of Thrones), does not a boring show make. Is it boring because there’s intricate dialogue? Because the suits are too pretty? Because there’s more diversity, both in terms of class and race and ethnicity, than not only most shows on television, but most shows on HBO? Is it boring because there’s a character who wears a mask over half his face but still manages to be a sex symbol? IS THAT BORING?
Point is, I have very little tolerance for the ‘boring’ argument, in part because I don’t think that all television has to have the pace of Breaking Bad. I like Top of the Lake, I liked the exquisitely slow Rectify. I feel the same way about the “it’s boring” complaint as I do about the “that movie was too long” complaint — there are bloated blockbusters that really are too long, and then there are movies that take longer to tell their story. Have some patience. Calm the eff down. Be expansive and imaginative with your expectations of how a plot can unfurl.
I also want to bolster my defense of this show, which I find pretty criminally underrated — in part because people think it’s one type of show, when in reality, I think it’s another. So I’ve asked Angela Serratore of Lapham’s Quarterly to join me in unpacking this defense. (I know she was the one to do it when her early morning Facebook post read ‘HAPPY BOARDWALK EMPIRE DAY!’)
AHP: Angela, when you talk about Boardwalk Empire, how do you talk about it? Like when someone says “what’s that show about,” what do you say?
AS: All the post-David Chase shows are about America and what it means to thrive here. I think BE is, more than Mad Men or Breaking Bad or pretty much any other show on television, about America and the banal ugliness of what it meant to make it here in a time before the middle class existed, in a time before Irish, Italians, and Jews were seen as fully white, and in a time when the idea that we’re all entitled to some piece of the pie hadn’t yet coalesced.
I suspect part of the reason people find the show boring is because most of the characters fall somewhere on the sociopath spectrum, and what we’ve come to demand from ‘difficult’ characters (I’m talking to you, Don Draper) is some degree of moral anguish. People on Boardwalk Empire don’t have that luxury. Irish-Catholic Margaret, who LEAVES HER HUSBAND because she’s got qualms about his involvement in crime, gets what is probably the most matter-of-fact abortion on the history of television because, well, what else is she going to do? I think this sort of pragmatism can come across as boring, in part because most of us don’t want to believe we’re capable of it.
AHP: I’m vigorously nodding my head here. I love how tribal and prejudiced this show is (or, rather, the culture it mediates is), and not because it makes me feel like we’ve moved past it, the way that Mad Men can (oh remember the ‘60s, when kids didn’t even wear seatbelts! Look how far we’ve come!) but because it serves as an invitation to see those things in our current society. Texts about history, of course, are always as much about the present moment as they are about the past, and I think Boardwalk Empire does a great job of showing the ways in which things like blatant racism and misogyny can be taken on and off, like a piece of Nucky’s very refined wardrobe, according to the demands of the market.
AS: That is an excellent point. Racism and misogyny (or their absence) are, for these characters, essentially tools of business. Nucky doesn’t have the luxury of considering whether or not Chalky’s family deserves the same chances as anyone else’s because he needs Chalky to help him kill people. Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky (who are quickly becoming some of the show’s most interesting characters, in my opinion) don’t have the luxury of being loyal to their Italian and Jewish bosses because they want to move organized crime into the modern era (read: sell heroin).
AS: What about the violence? Is it any more or less jarring than the violence of its peers?
AHP: Gangster violence, especially in the Coppola/Scorsese mode, has always fascinated me – and I’m not a person to tolerate much violence. Gangster violence is always so religious and primal, or at least that’s the way it’s shot and edited, and there’s something about framing violence in those terms that seems more meaningful, more of an act of a repertoire, than most other violence. It’s not that I think it’s beautiful, per se — it’s just that the violence, and the way it’s enacted, is always replete with meaning. Like in S02 (spoiler) when they scalp that dude — that’s to send a very specific message, much in the same way that the horse head in the bed sent a very specific message in The Godfather.
I think that some might argue that that’s stylizing, but I don’t think so — Tarantino stylizes violence; Michael Bay stylizes violence; postmodernism in general stylizes violence….and thus evacuates it of its meaning. When someone gets beat up in Boardwalk, it doesn’t look like a cartoon. It looks like that person was pummeled, and the bruises last. I’m not necessarily arguing for BE’s realism so much as its unflinching commitment to show violence as a tool that wounds both the aggressor and the victim. The “winners” in BE are fucked; the losers are fucked. In that — and its truly complicated take on its female characters — I think it’s most like Deadwood, which I miss like crazy.
AS: To be female on Boardwalk Empire is fascinating because it isn’t a death (literal or metaphorical) sentence! It’s taken Matt Weiner (and I really do love MM, I should point out), what, six seasons to really beat everyone over the head with the fact that Peggy is Don, but I think it’s evident from Boardwalk’s first episodes that, say, Margaret is just as ruthlessly pragmatic as Nucky. Joan sleeping with the Jaguar executive is the more polite version of Gillian murdering Jimmy’s clone so she can claim ownership of the house. The women on this show know what the men capable of and THEY’RE capable of. The ‘man acts bad, woman acts bad to punish him’ scenario doesn’t have a place on this show, because everyone is a striver, and that’s incredibly refreshing.
I will say that while I think the show’s treatment of females is fascinating, I’m unsure of its attitude towards femininity and qualities associated with the feminine. It was clear from the first season that Sensitive Jimmy was not someone who could make it in this world. His wife, the Lesbian Painter with Feelings, and her female lover are brutally executed because they have no leverage to offer their executioner. Paz de la Huerta’s showgirl can’t figure out how to be anything but a sex object; she’s summarily discarded by Nucky and, after becoming pregnant, falls into a state of physical and emotional collapse. Margaret, who moves in with the man who orders her husband’s murder, knows from the beginning of her relationship with Nucky that to fall pregnant would be inadvisable; it’s when she later lets her guard down and seems to feel genuine affection for the Hot Irishman that she gets into trouble. This is misogyny but it isn’t chauvinism–it’s the very simple fact that for most of history, to be feminine means to be in danger.
AHP: You are totally correct about Femininity as Weakness, but I will say that Nucky is the least masculine yet still masculine leading man I’ve witnessed (see further discussion below). And from a feminist perspective, I’m really grateful for the way the narrative has attended to the social and cultural realities of being a woman at this time — like the fact that the female-dominated teetotalers didn’t hate alcohol because they were prudes, but because their husbands kept using all their wages to get drunk and beat them. (I realize I’m being semi-reductive here, but I feel like that history really gets passed over in favor of harpy women who wanted to take away all the booze) And Season Three’s sex ed clinics, spearheaded by Margaret, that get off to a woozy start and then get her in trouble — if this were a different type of story, we’d have a montage of Margaret basically teaching every woman how to use appropriate birth control methods culminating in lots of happy tears. Instead, we see how impossible it was for even a woman of substantial means to do something like this — and how stultifying social institutions remained, even amidst the rise of the so-called “New Woman.”
And as for Margaret going soft with Soft Irishman and both of them being punished for it….I’m going to articulate an unsophisticated yet totally true opinion that every superb narrative needs a love story. It doesn’t have to be a traditional love story — the love story of Breaking Bad, after all, is kinda between Walt and Jesse — but you need two people to root for. Some people are rooting for Margaret and Nucky, but I’ve always had a soft spot for an Irish revolutionary, and I spent the bulk of the last season and a half rooting for Owen and Margaret. Clearly they were doomed, but that was part of the pleasure, like watching Romeo and Juliet for the fifteenth time.
AS: I agree with you. I love a love story, and I really love a revolutionary Irishman, and of course I can see how Margaret would have fallen for him, though their sex scenes are curious–if I’m remembering correctly, on virtually every occasion they’re intimate she demands it from him, sometimes rather coldly.
But I think her anguish over his death is brilliantly ambiguous–is she upset because she fell in love and her lover was delivered to her husband’s house in a box? Or is she upset because she needed a way out of Nucky’s Atlantic City and now that way out is gone (and she’s pregnant, too)? On a lesser show it would clearly be the former, but on this one, where the women are allowed to be just as pragmatic as their male counterparts? I’m not so sure.
AS: It’s always a dicey proposition to include real-world characters in your fictional story. I’d argue that BE does this better than pretty much any other show I watch, but is that off-putting?
AHP: You know, the Girls in Hoodies podcast was talking about how historical accuracy limits what this show can do, both in terms of character development and general plotting, but I think that it’s like the Classic Hollywood Studio System: a healthy set of constraints actually allows you to focus on establishing depth, instead of breadth. Like we know what happens with Al Capone, and the writers have to hew somewhat closely to that narrative — but they can also do a ton of exploration with how to get him there, and how the character playing him develops….like the stuff about him and his deaf son, I just love.
AS: Also, as historians I think we’d both agree that implying that Real People of History can limit a story’s progress/development is to overlook that history is fiction is history, etc. etc.
AHP: YOU COULD NOT BE MORE CORRECT, ANGELA. Which segues nicely into BE’s depiction of race, which most texts focusing on this period just ignore entirely in favor of jazz age spectacle. In fact, the casting of Michael K. Williams as Chalky White was one of my major attractions to the show, even before it began airing [COMPLETE ASIDE: Is Richard Harrow the Omar of Boardwalk Empire? Discuss]. I was fairly unimpressed with Chalky’s screentime, or lack thereof, throughout the first two seasons, but his storyline last year was just explosive. I couldn’t look away. Part of that is Williams’ insane acting ability, and part of it is the willingness to portray a black character with the same sort of nuance as the white characters. Chalky is at once incredibly charismatic and incredibly flawed — not unlike Nucky.
AS: I’ve seen some fans of the show give Nucky too much credit for being business associates with a black man (it’s not like he’s being invited to dinner parties, you know?). But I think of all the male relationships on the show the one that’s caused me to hold my breath the most is that of Nucky and Chalky. Last season, when Nucky had nowhere else to go and Chalky took him in and agreed to throw his manpower behind him? That was a careful bet on Chalky’s part, one based on desire for future favors from Nucky, concerns about what another white person in charge might demand from Chalky’s operation, knowledge that the shrewd Nucky should never be counted out, and, maybe, a little bit of friendship or mutual respect?
In most media that deals with crime, races are allowed to unite exclusively for transactional reasons, with race itself being at the forefront of the alliance. That Chalky and Nucky are allowed to have this relationship at all is a testament to Winter’s understanding of how people climbing up the ladder deal with each other.
AHP: I’m super excited about the casting of Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a Marcus Garvey-ite rooted in Harlem who’ll serve as counterpoint to Chalky. Andy Greenwald recently interviewed Wright for the Hollywood Prospectus podcast, and his description of this character and what he gets to do with him over the course of the season, sounds incredible. Wright comes off as wicked smart and super learned in the politics of 1920s Harlem, including the discourses of the “New Negro” and the “Talented 10th” (and how they butted up against those of Marcus Garvey), and it sounds like the writers of the show are positioning his character to reflect and engage in that cultural moment in a highly textured way.
AS: Can we talk about where Nucky lies on the leading-man spectrum now? Anyone who knows me IRL knows about my powerful attraction to Steve Buscemi. I also think he (and Nucky, by extension), is sort of a litmus test: anyone whose initial response is to call him weird-looking or dull is immediately written off as a person with no imagination.
But I think something that separates him from the rest of the pack (and makes him more than a little frightening, quite frankly), is that he’s got very little in the way of a backstory and yet it doesn’t matter. Don Draper is all id, doing whatever he wants because he was birthed and raised by whores, and that’s something that informs virtually every decision he makes. Nucky had distant parents and a dead wife, and yet we rarely wonder about them, which I think is a further testament to the idea of the show as about what it meant to be American at a time when people were still deciding what that even meant. Nucky doesn’t waffle over notions of who he is–why bother with that when you can get on with the much more interesting business of winning?
AHP: It’s a fascinating example of attention to period psychology: in the 1950s, it makes sense that everyone around Don Draper is trying to figure out “who he is,” because the spread of pop-Freudism positioned childhood as a key to unlock identity. But Nucky is defined by his Irishness heritage (and the Catholicism that accompanies it) and the fact that he doesn’t speak with an accent (read: second-generation, and thus more wholly American). Which is part, I think, of why he has no qualms about dealing with gangsters, whether they be Jewish or Italian or Black, and also why he attends so mindfully to his clothing. He may always be Irish (and remember, we’re still 40 years away from having an Irish president, and even he had to promise the American public he had no allegiance to the Pope in Rome), but living in American capitalism, at least during this specific time period, means that he can indeed transcend his class. But bottom line, at least for me: Nucky is hot because he’s very smart.
AS: Yes, which is a nice segue into what we’re looking forward to this season, because I think the question almost always is: Nucky is smart, but do smarts last forever?
Nucky has gotten by on his wits and his ability to convince other people that he’s a sound bet–is that going to hold? He’s got incredibly fragile relationships with Chalky, Rothstein, Capone, Luciano, and Lansky. Is he going to look ahead well enough to choose the right sides, or is the rapidly approaching end of Prohibition going to throw him off his game? We saw last season that Luciano and Lansky were looking beyond booze and into hard drugs, and this represents a huge shift in a system of organized crime in which bosses at least pretended to have boundaries. Will Nucky have boundaries? Will he pretend to have them?
I’ve read in early reviews that Margaret is absent from the first few episodes, which makes sense–she and Nucky are estranged at the end of last season, and Kelly Macdonald was pregnant during the filming of much of this season. Still, I wonder about her possibe return to the fold. Will Nucky find another showgirl (and another one after that?) Or will the both of them realize what they are and what they can be together, a la Tony and Carmela?
I am also interested to see how Ron Livingston fares. Part of why this show looks so good is because everyone in it looks like they belong in the 1920s–will the introduction of someone with a modern face change the landscape?
AHP: You stole all my questions, save one: WHAT WILL BECOME OF RICHARD? He is the heart of the show for me, and the way they handle him will say a lot about how I handle the show.
With that, I hope that we’ve proven that Boardwalk Empire is anti-boring, or at least that only boring people are bored, etc., et. al. We’ll clearly be watching tonight and commenting up a storm tomorrow, and hope you’ll join us freaking out over Nucky’s newest tie choices.
For The Hairpin:
“No Theoryheads Allowed” (on theoryheads, grad school, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s superb new collection)
Yammering on about Christian summer camp songs in “Lord I Lift Your Camp On High”
Applying my theory of the postfeminist dystopia to Sex in the City in “Sex and the Dystopia”
Over at Laptham’s Quarterly: a piece on Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties featuring the best 15-part bathing suits of all time.
For The Toast:
Here on the Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style site:
An update from July on the process of writing my book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood (further update: I’m done!)
For the Whitman College Film & Media Studies Podcast:
I talk about my most important film at age 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, and 30 in Episode 11 of The Cold Open.
I’m also going to start writing at the amazing Dear Television next week-ish — if you don’t follow on Facebook, get on that.
Finally, the latest round of Summer Endorsements, including lots of Instagram Dog Recs, over at Virginia Quarterly Review.
Enjoy — and I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the pieces above!
By now you’ve heard all about Miley Cyrus at the VMAs — and whether you think it was a minstrel show, an example of the double standard exacted on women, or simply in bad taste, the overwhelming reaction has been negative.
Take a look at Jody Rosen’s incisive critique for New York Magazine:
Cyrus has spent a lot of time recently toying with racial imagery. We’ve seen Cyrus twerking her way through the video for her big hit “We Can’t Stop,” professing her love for “hood music,” and claiming spiritual affinity with Lil’ Kim. Last night, as Cyrus stalked the stage, mugging and twerking, and paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer, her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism: a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma, and by the dark beauty of “We Can’t Stop” — by a good distance, the most powerful pop hit of 2013.
A doctoral dissertation could (and will) be written on the racial, class, and gender dynamics of Cyrus’s shtick. I’ll make just one historical note. For white performers, minstrelsy has always been a means to an end: a shortcut to self-actualization. The archetypal example is in The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson’s immigrant striver puts on the blackface mask to cast off his immigrant Jewish patrimony and remake himself as an all-American pop star.
Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention: her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of “the hood.” But the reason that these affinities are coming out now, at the VMAs and elsewhere, is because it’s good for business.
It’s gross, it’s exploitative, it’s unfortunate. But what fascinates me isn’t the critique — although there’s much more to be said, especially in terms of gender and self-exploitation and postfeminism — so much as Cyrus’s immunity to it. These critiques may shade our understanding of her image; when someone writes a star study of her, decades from now, this performance, and the response to it, may or may not hold as much significance as, say, her turn as Hannah Montana. But her stardom will endure — and not even because of the old maxim that ‘all publicity is good publicity.’
Cyrus, and other pop stars with negative publicity swirling around them, are immune for a rather simple reason: their power, and resilience, doesn’t stem from their images. It’s in their music. And so long as you can turn on your Top 40 radio station and hear a super catchy song — catchy enough that it overrides your personal politics — it doesn’t matter what they do, so long as the music remains infective.
Take the most blatant example of a Pop Star Behaving Badly: Chris Brown. In what has now become well-trod public knowledge, on the night of February 9th, 2009, Chris Brown physically attacked then-girlfriend Rihanna. The severity of the beating only became evident when a picture of her battered face, leaked to TMZ, quickly spread across the internet. In the years since the event, Brown has managed to make himself look like even more of an asshole, tattooing a picture of a battered woman, who just happens to look like Rihanna, on his neck, and making all matter of equally egregious statements. But I don’t need to convince you of Brown’s douchery: it’s common knowledge.
And yet, his records still sell. And not just a little, amongst the Brown defenders, but a lot. Number One album, Number One Singles, tons of award nominations a lot. His video for “Look at Me Now,” released in 2011, has received over 220 MILLION YouTube views. “Don’t Wake Me Up” was EVERYONE last summer.
Now, I love Top 40 radio. I’ve always loved it. I love its comforting repetitiveness; I love how it familiarizes me with the newest pop, for better or for worst, while I’m driving to the grocery store. But I loathe Brown and the choices his image represents, so I change the channel when one of his songs comes on — even the implicit, passive endorsement is too much for me. But I can’t change the channel when I’m pumping my gas and the loud speaker is playing that same Top 40 station or when it comes on during a sports game.
Do all these Clear Channel radio execs endorse domestic abuse? Does the owner of the gas station? Do the players on the sports team? Do most of the kids listening at home or playing the YouTube video in the background while they do their homework or chat online? Do the moms who let their kid use the song for her ringtone? Probably not, no. But the songs are catchy. And because you’re not looking at Brown’s face as the song plays in the background, you can deal. It’s the banality of catchy Top 40, and it’s very easy to tolerate. If Brown’s music were shitty, he’d no longer be popular. Simple.
But why doesn’t this disarticulation of performer and product work with other celebrities? Why can’t we tolerate what Paula Deen does in her private life, with the understanding that she’s a “good” cook? What about Mel Gibson, who’s still a decent actor, but has arguably behaved less abhorrently than Brown? Because celebrities in general — and film and television actors in particular — are wed to their actual faces. Every time I see Mel Gibson onscreen, I’m reminded of the infamous mugshot. Every time I hear his voice, I hear the transcript of racial epithets. Every time I see Paul Deen’s face, I see her clumsy, back-handed apology for her own racial epithets. The thing that makes the star a star — the talent — is yoked physical appearance.
Granted, pop stars are pop stars in no small part due to their ability to manufacture an image to accompany their songs. Without her boyfriends and break-ups and best friends and bitch face, Taylor Swift would not be Taylor Swift. But the source of her power and charisma is not in her appearance, per se, or her speaking ability — as clearly evidenced last night at the VMAs. It’s in her catchy-ass music that worms into your head and refuses to leave. Britney’s a great example here: now that she’s basically become a recluse, her new releases still sell like crazy. It’s not because she’s a good singer — she’s not, really — but because she has great production. Max Martin, Dr. Luke — if they make it, it doesn’t matter who sings it, or what the body behind that voice has done, you’ll listen to it.
Or take the so-called “song of the summer, “Blurred Lines,” which may or may not be “rapey.” If it were a poem, submitted as assignment by a student, I’d probably go for the later. But put it with a Pharrell beat, and every time it plays at a summer wedding, you’ll be on the dance floor — it’s easy to forget about how condescending the video is when it’s that easy to move to.
There are dozens of other singers who have committed crimes, cultural or literal, that we ignore. And as much as Cyrus’s performance engenders intelligent conversations about race and sexuality, the fact remains that her song — “We Can’t Stop” — is infectious. Cyrus herself may not understand that the song’s power and poignancy stem from its sadness (someone on Facebook said “it sounds like the funeral music for a young person”), but that infectiousness makes Cyrus, the industrial earner, immune.
Cyrus won’t make money because of this performance — she makes money because of the song that undergirds it. And so long as she continues to make that much money, big name, super talented producers will continue to make songs for her, which will continue to dominate the radio and top 40 charts. She could become a lesbian, she could date a guy twenty years older than her, she could leak a sex tape, she could convert to Scientology, she could cloister herself in a Buddhist monastery, she could appropriate the signifiers of yet another culture, she could join the Occupy Movement, she could change her name to a symbol — so long as this was still her single, and she still had the muscle of a major label behind her, this song would still be one of the major hits of the summer.
You know the one thing she probably couldn’t do? Become an outspoken, radical feminist. Which, contrasted with the embrace of Brown, should tell you something about what our culture will and will not tolerate from our idols.